Fr. Sweeney’s Farewell

Fr. Eamon Sweeney has served Saint Patrick’s parish for twenty five years. He celebrated his final mass in the parish on Tuesday 29th September. At the end of mass he said his goodbye to the parishioners. Also retiring were the Pastoral Assistant, Sister Moira Duffy and his housekeeper Kathleen. Sister Moira Duffy and Fr. Sweeney made a video where they recall some of the events of their time in Saint Patrick’s. You can view that video here

After The Virus

We have been in ‘lockdown’ for so long now that I’ve forgotten what a normal day was. We do get out; we walk in the park or around a block or two if it’s very windy. Our days have taken on a new shape. We celebrate our mass via the computer. It’s a bit like having a house mass with no other people there. Even our walks outside are different. The roads are quieter and the air seems cleaner. There is nothing much we can do out there so there is really no pressure. Life has become quieter.

This is not ideal. We miss our grandchildren; video calls are good but not quite the same thing.  My wife has joined Gareth’s online choir and they practice every weeknight at five thirty. We are continuing with the Holy Father’s rosary for the Corona Virus victims and workers. Our life has a new tempo.

Increasingly we are questioning why our ‘normal life’ was the way it had become. Why was there so much pressure to get to places and get things done? So many people are working from home now, using laptops and having meetings on Zoom. They are even making television programmes with the participants working from home. When people start questioning why we do things the way we do it can lead to big changes. Are we about to change how we live?

This virus had forced us to question what is really important. Is it more important to save lives or to save the economy? Perhaps the two are not unrelated. If people cannot go to buy clothes, go to the pub or go on holiday then businesses will suffer and jobs will be lost. Unemployment will cost lives. If people are forced to work in unsafe conditions some will die. If we kill off the workforce the economy will suffer.

It seems to me it’s all a question of values. Are the people here to serve the economy or is the economy about serving the people? I take the stance that people are important and the economy is important where it serves the interests of the people. Why do I say that? It is simply because God created people. We are here because it is God’s will.

I have no idea when this emergency will be over. I don’t know how many lives will be lost. I do think that when it is over we need to bring about change. Every Thursday evening we have been coming out to demonstrate our appreciation for the workers in the NHS and emergency services who have risked their lives for us. We have been forced to think again about who is important in our society. We have come to realise that those people we depend upon have been undervalued and their service has gone largely unappreciated.

I believe that we need to rebuild our society as one which is based on Christian values. We need to recognise that people are the priority. The economy, the laws and our institutions are there to serve the people. We can no longer decide on the value of a person on the basis of how much money they have or the level of their earnings or the property they own. As Christians we believe that God values every person equally as He created all of them and gave His Son to die for them, rich or poor, the good and, significantly, the bad.

So, how do we go about this revolution, for a revolution it is? We need to look to Jesus and how He began his work. We remember that Jesus began his work at a wedding and he started reluctantly. He thought He wasn’t quite ready but His mother had other ideas. At that wedding in Cana Jesus gave us three hints about starting out. He recognised that someone was in difficulty and decided to help. That’s a good place to start. How many people have been recognising their neighbour’s difficulties in this lockdown and set out to help? So we have made a start already. It might not seem like a major issue to start on but then Jesus’ first miracle was just about a shortage of wine.

That’s the second hint. We don’t start changing the world by tackling the big issues first. We deal with the practical things. We deal with the problems that are easiest to solve. How difficult can it be to make sure everyone gets enough to live on? Even before the lockdown the big shops were in trouble. People didn’t have enough money to buy all the things they were selling. Shop windows were soon displaying notices of 20% OFF, then 50% OFF. This kept the businesses going. Now if people had a little more money and prices didn’t go too high things might just work better.

The third hint was that Jesus can take a seemingly insoluble problem and do something remarkable. It’s clear that when we work with Jesus great things can happen. This implies that we should not expect to know all the answers ourselves. It is easy to let our own ideas lead us off in the wrong direction. We need to be able to follow God’s will rather than our own. By giving prayer its proper place in our lives we should be able to keep closer to God’s will.

Jesus told us that the most important commandment was to love God and to love our neighbour. If we follow that guide closely then whatever society we build should remain close to God’s ideals. By looking after the interests of others we can only succeed in building a fair society. We have seen that acquiring lots of money does not protect us from disease. It cannot save us from the virus but the unselfish help from our doctors and underpaid nurses can bring us safely out of it.

With the help of God and the love our neighbour we should be able to create a world worth living in.

Communications Problems

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 13th March 2020

I was just thinking about the demise of the postcard. Nobody takes the time to send them anymore. Why bother choosing, writing and posting something that might arrive two weeks after you get home when you can send an instant photo on Twitter or WhatsApp or some such. Communications have changed dramatically in my lifetime. The world I was born into seems like an alien planet to millennials.

The wireless (nobody called it the radio then) was the centrepiece of the living room. Television was a rumour that sprung into life with the Coronation in 1953. The telephone lived in a red painted greenhouse at the corner or in the homes of people with money. You had to lift the phone and listen for the operator who would connect you with the number you required.

I had uncles and aunts in California and I remember my Dad being sent for when Uncle Benny had booked a call from America at eight that night. Yes, you had to book time on the transatlantic cable in those days. The whole family gathered at Uncle Joe’s house; he had a telephone. All the brothers and sisters got a few seconds to exchange greetings. It wasn’t what they said; it was just great to hear their brother’s voice.

The big changes began with Telstar, the first communications satellite that carried TV pictures and ‘phone calls. Other satellites followed and communications exploded. I can dial a call to any place under the sun, even though the dial left the ‘phone years ago. I have a ‘phone in my pocket that lets me call any place from almost any other place. The ‘phone can also send pictures and video of what I’m up to as well as browsing the internet.

It was as a man from this interconnected world that I met a very different kind of man. I was in India, in Tamil Nadu at the bottom of that subcontinent. I was on a mission visit with my boss Fr. Pat and we were staying at a school, or rather a campus of schools that served the poor of the region. I was greeted by an old man (well he looked very old but probably was younger than me) dressed in a simple loincloth.

In the caste system, which was then illegal, the lowest caste was only allowed this garment so that people would recognise that they were untouchable. This man greeted me by putting his hands together with splayed fingers and bowed. I responded with a bow of the head and a smile. I asked Fr. Pat what this greeting was about. His answer was that the man was paying homage to the deity within me.

Here was I, a man of sophisticated communications systems, who might greet you with “Hello” or maybe just “Hi” being greeted by a very simple man who alludes to the essential truth of my being, that I am the creation of a God who resides with me. Who is the simple man now? That meeting forced me to think about the nature of my communications. I could send a picture of myself in India to friends in Scotland but how did I communicate with the Holy Spirit who is never very far from me? Perhaps it is the nature of the communication that stops me.

A trivial comment and a picture are easy to send. They do not require much thought. The result might be a smile or a smart reply. Communicating with God is a different business altogether. The trivia does not go very far with a person who knows you better than you know yourself. And yet the very fact that God knows you so well should make communication much easier.  Listening to God makes more sense than taking advice from anyone else. In the silence that quiet voice can be heard but silence is something I avoid.

When I’m alone in the house I play music or switch on the television or radio, anything to fill the place with noise and block out the silence. I’m not listening to the music, not watching the television programmes; I’m not even interested in what they are about. The other day I found that my set top box had recorded a whole series of programmes I’ve never seen. It had noted that this programme was frequently on my TV. It had no way of knowing that I wasn’t watching.

Why do I use all this trivia to stop me communicating with God? Am I aware I’m doing it? Am I afraid to reveal who I am to God? If that’s the case then I’m even more stupid than I had suspected. God knows everything about me. That’s why listening to God would be more valuable than listening to anyone else. I’m not claiming to hear voices in my head, that’s never a good sign. God’s communication is more subtle than that. You don’t get a vision appearing on your wall but you might find a solution to something that has bothered you. You might have a good idea about helping someone or have a sudden urge to speak to someone. God doesn’t make demands but helps us to see things we had never thought of before. He lets us thing it’s our idea.

We are into Lent now and the big question is ‘What will I do for Lent?’. Will I give up chocolate? Will I put more money in the Saint Vincent de Paul box? I decided to get to daily mass more often, get closer to God. Now that I’ve been thinking about the distractions in my life perhaps I should aim for more silence. Perhaps I need to make more space for God to speak to me and that can only happen in silence.

I’m going to try to limit how much time I spend online; using social media, browsing the internet for the latest scandal about Donald Trump. I’ll shut down my computer when I finish working on it and leave that gap in my day, a gap that the silence can fill. What about my ‘phone? Can I trust myself to leave it in my pocket when I go for a coffee or sit on the train? The temptation is always there to click on the ‘phone and see what’s causing all the excitement on Twitter. I’m not too happy about switching off my ‘phone; I could miss that important message from Parkhead telling me to bring my boots, they are a man short. Maybe that would be my biggest sacrifice for Lent, switching off the ‘phone. I wonder?

Whatever you decide to do this Lent, don’t give up. Even if you have a bar of chocolate now and again you can still keep trying. No matter what you do try a bit of silence now and again. You don’t have to do the full silent retreat, just a few minutes here and there when you switch off, like the ‘phone.

A New Plague Upon Us

Lent is a time for getting ready for Easter. This year, like many others, we decided to concentrate on spiritual preparation. We focused on our prayer life with attendance at daily mass as often as possible. This week saw a premature end to all that.

On the 18th March it was announced that there would be no more public masses after St. Joseph’s day on the 19th. As it happened I came down with some nasty symptoms and we decided we should self isolate just incase it was the dreaded lurgy. I think it is just a heavy cold but you can’t be too careful.

So we found ourselves at home on St. Joseph’s day with our plans in tatters. Then we saw the message from the Holy Father asking people to join with him in reciting the Rosary at 9.00 pm Rome Time. That translates to 8.00 pm Coatbridge time. So that’s what we did. We have decided that we will continue this for the rest of Lent as our spiritual preparation.

There is a historical link to this. The last time that mass was not publicly available in Scotland was back in the time of the Reformation. We recently celebrated the feast of Saint John Ogilvie as a reminder of that. How did those Catholic communities, many tucked away in the Highlands, keep the Faith alive?

They used the Rosary. So here we are, hundreds of years later, turning to the Rosary again as our main spiritual exercise. There are masses being offered in private but with a webcam broadcasting the service in real time. You can join in on your computer or, as I have found, on your smart TV. The bigger screen lets us feel we are really there.

I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t know how many will survive this plague. I can only wish you a safe and Holy Lent. Keep the Faith if you have it. Perhaps you can take this time to find it again if you have lost it. Don’t worry if you never had it God is watching over you anyway.

Stay safe and look after each other.

Communications Breakdown?

As the Corona virus spreads and fear of the virus spreads even faster we are forced to think about how we can communicate with each other. In a lockdown our near neighbours might as well be on the other side of the Atlantic.

My thoughts on how we communicate and sorting the trivial from the important in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy at your local parish (quick before it’s locked down). Full text here next weekend.

Leprosy Today?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 31st January 2020.

In the readings at Mass recently we have had some example of encounters Jesus had with sufferers of leprosy. I can still remember the descriptions my teachers gave of the horrible effects of this dreaded disease. This was something that people could get in biblical times and we were not in any danger of contracting it. It was only when I was older that I learned that leprosy is still a big problem in some parts of the world but it is treatable.

More recently I learned that leprosy was a notable feature in Scotland’s history. Robert The Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306 ‘till 1329, suffered from leprosy. Recent research has discovered that his nose and mouth were distorted by the disease. I’m sure he was not the only one in Scotland to suffer that problem. So why is leprosy so prominent in the Gospels?

Leprosy can be spread by contact so lepers were excluded from normal society. People shunned them and forced them to live apart. Disease and disablement was regarded as a punishment for sin so lepers got little sympathy from normal society. They were sinners after all. This may explain the prominence of lepers in the Gospels. Jesus’ approach to lepers was very different from the norm. We read of Jesus not only curing the lepers but actually touching them. This must have been shocking to the Jewish society he lived in.

The message He was giving was not only that he could release the lepers from a dreaded disease but that he could release them from the terrible sin they carried the blame for. If Jesus could do that for the lepers then he could release all of us from the grip of sin. Jesus, the only sinless man, did not shun the sinner but accepted him and took on the burden of that sin. There is hope for all of us.

A few years ago, on a visit to India, I visited a leper clinic. Lepers came there for treatment. Some who were detected early were cured by medication while others who had suffered some disfigurement were treated surgically. All were cured. Not all went home after their cure. Some had no option but to stay there with the Servite Sisters who run the clinic. There is a small community there who help to keep the clinic running by producing things for sale and maintaining the buildings and grounds.

I met three young girls who had been cured by medication but could not go home. The people in their village would not accept them. This was partly due to fear of leprosy and partly a belief that they were not acceptable, untouchable in a place of a higher caste. I met an older man who has undergone surgery to restore the use of his hands. He put his hands to work in maintaining the clinic grounds. He would not be accepted home either.

A couple of years later I was in a leper community in Liberia. The SMA missionary I was staying with, Fr. Garry Jenkins, had set up a mobile clinic. The clinic visited various villages in turn to check for signs of leprosy in the population. In this village the nurses checked the sufferers and issued their medication. They checked the children for any signs of the disease. There was no sign of rejection here. Everyone seemed happy. I was able to mingle with them as I did in any African village. Shaking hands was not a problem.

I could feel good about myself. I didn’t shun anyone on account of their leprosy. Did that make me a good, tolerant person? I understood the nature of the disease and how it could be cured. I didn’t harbour any prejudice. Time to polish up my halo? Well not quite.

Are there any other people I would shun? Are there people I would rather steer clear of? Not really, other than those who might fall outside ‘acceptable’ society. That could be supporters of a football team I don’t like or a political party I find unacceptable. There could be criminals who have committed terrible crimes that I couldn’t accept. Surely I’m not expected to associate with them?

What about immigrants who come here and don’t speak our language. They keep their own customs and dress differently. They don’t even eat the same kinds of foods that we eat, preferring foods I’ve never seen before and probably wouldn’t like. Would it be a good idea to stay away from people like that?

Then there are people who might look just like me but seem to have a strange way of thinking. They could be nationalists or unionists, leavers or remainers. I wouldn’t expect to get on with people whose ideas are strangely different from mine. What about religion? Some people believe in religions that are at odds with my religion. They may believe in gods I don’t accept. They may believe in the same God that I believe in but they don’t accept that I’m right and they are wrong. Is there any basis for getting on together in that situation?

Jesus accepted the lepers. He associated with them and touched them. I’ve done the same in India and Africa so I must be ok. However, leprosy is not a big problem for me. I don’t have any fear of contracting it. Even if I did, the visitor we had from Lepra, the charity that helps those with leprosy,  has assured us that it can be easily cured. No. I’m ok with lepers but I may have substituted my own lepers.

If I really want to follow Jesus and be a real Christian then there is no room for excluding people. To behave like Christ I must accept people with different views, different politics, different religions even different lifestyles and moral values. Being a Christian is about accepting not rejecting. I don’t have to accept their lifestyle, their politics, their customs or their religion but I must accept them as brothers and sisters.

Please note I didn’t say this was going to be easy. Some people will not accept my views, lifestyle, beliefs or religion. They may reject me and shun me but I can’t reject or shun them. Jesus was rejected and crucified by people in His time but in His dying words asked the Father to forgive them. I am expected to take up my cross and follow Him and do my best to bring others to Christ, not reject them. Now I have not painted a rosy picture of Christian life. It does seem hard, if not impossible but help is at hand. I firmly believe that God does not expect us to do the difficult things without help. The Holy Spirit is always around and can enable us to do things we never imagined we could. We only have to ask.

It’s That Time of Year Again

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on 20th Dec 2019.

I suppose you have noticed that Christmas is coming. You can hardly miss it; the shops are full of clues like Christmas lights, decorations, images of Santa and reindeer. I was looking at a range of charity Christmas cards in a popular store the other day and even found one card that had the word, ‘Christmas’. The shelves are stuffed with toys for all the girls and boys and I suppose that’s what we think about at this time. Christmas is an exciting time for children.

Children are preparing for Christmas, playing parts in the Nativity Play; could be Joseph or Mary or probably one of the angel chorus. Children are encouraged to work on their behaviour. Santa’s helpers will be keeping an eye on everyone and Santa is making up his list. Everyone is being good so they get moved up Santa’s list. Parents are getting the Christmas menu sorted out for the big Christmas Day dinner. Writing the Christmas cards and wrapping the gifts takes hours. Christmas Day sees us at mass and gathering round the crib to see the baby Jesus.

The children gaze at the holy child, the picture of innocence we are all encouraged to emulate. Even the animals push in close to be near Jesus. This is the Holy Family that all our families should be like. Christmas is a great time for families.

Of course it’s not like that for everyone. Occasionally we get one or maybe two people at Midnight Mass who have had a wee bit too much to drink. Sometimes they just sit there but some can be a bit noisy. Often you find that they haven’t been to Mass for a long time. They fell away years ago because they couldn’t deal with it. They were put off by the guilt that many feel and then they feel they don’t belong. For some reason they feel called back and the alcohol dims the guilt feeling.

Christmas is seen as a happy time for the good, the innocent and the holy but not for the sinners and the excluded. It’s about the good people welcoming the Baby Jesus and singing Christmas Carols, isn’t it? Well, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s wrong. Christmas is the birthday of Jesus but that’s not the beginning. Jesus is the Son of God and He was around for a long time before the first Christmas. He was around before there was time actually. Christmas was the coming of the Son on a mission.

It’s the mission the Holy Child was sent on that gives Christmas its significance. This child was sent to change the world. Jesus was to grow into a man who broke the rules. The Son of God did not associate with princes and kings. He lived among the ordinary people and the poor. There were people in that society that decent people did not associate with. Jesus kept company with tax collectors and fallen women. He wasn’t very nice to some of the important people.

Jesus had come to save the sinners, the excluded and the lost. When challenged about his choice of associates he replied that it is the sick who need the doctor, not the healthy. In a sense Christmas is really all about sinners. If there were no sinners there would be no need for Jesus to come to save them. However there never seems to be a shortage of sinners. We were all innocent children once but living in the world, we find it difficult to avoid sin.

It is useful to remember that we are all sinners but we must not let feelings of guilt cause us to despair. Jesus brought the message that we are all saved and He saved us by His death and resurrection. Of course Jesus didn’t leave it at that. He formed his Church with Peter as its rock. It is our mission to continue His work of saving sinners.

How do we go about that? Well, I suppose we should take our lead from Jesus. He did not point the finger of accusation at the sinner. He, who was sinless, beckoned to the sinner to come to Him. Do we do the same? Are we ready to welcome the sinner, the outcast or the inebriated man at the back of the church?

I think we are very good at recognising and helping the poor and the sick. We contribute to charities like SCIAF and MISSIO to bring aid to the poor all over the world. We contribute to the Saint Vincent DePaul collections to help those who have fallen on hard times nearer home. Schools put together Christmas parcels and distribute them to old folk living on limited means. How good are we at reaching out to the others?

Our prisons are overflowing with convicted prisoners. Some of them get visitors while others may be far from home and have nobody to reach out to them. How good are we at accepting those prisoners when they are released from prison? Do we welcome them warmly or do we view them with suspicion, seeing them as guilty men? (I know they are not all men.)

How would Christ see them? Would He reject them and turn away? I don’t think so. I think Jesus would not condemn them but offer them forgiveness and salvation. Remember, Jesus came to change the world. As a Christian I’m compelled to continue that task of changing the world. That sounds impossible but I’m not on my own. There are millions of us all over the world with that same task.

How do I start this change? Well I first of all need to bring about change in myself. I need to start by changing how I see other people. Do I look down on the inebriated man at the back of the church or do I recognise someone who has been moved to come to Christ even if he doesn’t realise it? Do I condemn or do I welcome?

This Christmas I’ll try to see the crib a bit differently; not just the Baby Jesus for children to wonder at but the Son of God calling out to all the sinners (me included) to come back to Him. I need to remember that no matter what we have done, what sins we have committed, what hurts we may have caused, the Baby Jesus doesn’t see our guilt but our need of forgiveness.

This Christmas is a time for rejoicing. It’s a time for sinners to rejoice because Jesus does not condemn us but wants to welcome us. Nobody is excluded, no matter what their story is. If Jesus can reach out to everyone who am I to look down on anyone?

I’m looking forward to Christmas and I will get caught up in all the usual preparations but this year I’ll try to get busy changing myself into the kind of person Jesus calls us all to be. I hope your preparations don’t get too hectic. Have a joyful Christmas this year. If you are a sinner like me just remember Christmas is all about us sinners.

Christmas – What’s Under the Tree for Sinners?

As we prepare to plunge into Christmas again let’s take a closer look at what’s on offer. There’s plenty of excitement for the good girls and boys on Santa’s list. There’s the music and colour of midnight Mass for the faithful. But what about the sinners? What can Christmas mean for them?

Read my thoughts in this week’s bumper edition of The Scottish Catholic Observer. It’s in your parish this weekend.

Glasgow Central Station Tour

Have you been on the Central Station tour? If not you should make a point of going when you are in Glasgow. We went along the other day (you need to book in advance) and were fitted out with hard hats and fluorescent vests. We looked like a small but determined group on a demo.

We were taken down into the bowels of the station and were amazed at the size of the spaces there. The guide explained how these spaces were used in the early days of the station. He also showed us the outline of the village that was cleared to make way for the station.

The group were led through the caverns

Going down further we entered the place where the bodies of soldiers killed in the First World War were laid awaiting the families to identify them. The guide’s account of the social history of this station is particularly shocking at this point. Going down further we entered a disused platform on what was an early underground track. This space is under development and they plan to reconstruct a Victorian platform here in the future.

The very bottom of the station

The workers here have found lots of evidence of life in a Victorian station, cigarette packets, newspapers etc. They have even found traces of early tunnels from the time of the original village here. I’m sure this will develop into an even more interesting attraction for anyone who is interested in the history of Glasgow and of railways.